The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The West needs to up its sanctions game against Russia

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and outgoing Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev attend a ceremony inaugurating Vladimir Putin as the then new Russian President at the Kremlin in Moscow on May 7, 2018 (Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

Former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who has become fabulously wealthy by working with Vladimir Putin and Russian state-controlled energy companies, is not on any country’s sanctions list. As the Kremlin’s most prominent energy lobbyist, he chairs the shareholder committee of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and the board of Russian oil giant Rosneft. When recently given the chance to renounce Putin and his horrific war against Ukraine, he responded, “I don’t do mea culpa.”

Schroeder’s dismal example reminds us that the current regime of sanctions against Russia still has some serious blind spots. I write this in full acknowledgment and praise of the West’s considerable achievements so far. In their efforts to accelerate the end of Putin’s illegal, unprovoked and perhaps genocidal war, President Biden, European leaders and many of the governments around the world that believe in international order have implemented the most far-reaching sanctions against Russia ever; the speed and unity of this campaign has been unprecedented. Hundreds of companies have placed morality over profits and pulled out of Russia. And crucial new European actions against Russian oil imports may be coming soon, especially after Russia sought to cut off its gas supply to Poland and Bulgaria.

Some of these sanctions target economic sectors. Others have focused on specific political and economic actors — a sound approach, since individual sanctions have the advantage of focusing the economic pain on responsible decision-makers while avoiding excessive damage to the population at large. In practice, though, such a policy is hard to implement consistently. Too many Russian oligarchs close to Putin and too many Russian officials working for Putin still have not been sanctioned. The present approach places too much discretionary burden on governments implementing sanctions as they try to decide which individuals deserve to be sanctioned and which do not.

For that reason, rather than targeting specific individuals, the world should shift some sanctions to target positions in the Russian government, state-owned enterprises, political parties and state-controlled media. Russians in these jobs then have a choice: They can stay in their government and government-affiliated roles and face the consequences — or resign and avoid sanctions. Sanctioning positions rather than individuals would also simplify targeting for governments. More systematic rules are easier to implement and defend. This principle also provides a way for individuals in Putin’s government to get off the sanctions list, an option not available now.

Guided by this approach, every board member of Russia’s state-owned oil company Rosneft would be sanctioned, including Schroeder and former Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl. They would then have to decide whether to stay on the board and be sanctioned or resign. Several European leaders have already chosen the latter option: former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi from Delimobil, former Finnish Prime Minister Esko Aho from Sberbank and former Austrian chancellor Christian Kern from Russian Railways (RZD).

Once this new principle of sanctioning positions is in place, the United States and European sanction lists should be expanded dramatically. Ukraine’s National Agency on Corruption Prevention has identified 9,000 individuals, while the Anti-Corruption Foundation founded by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has recommended 6,000 people. Thousands of positions in the Russian government, Russian state-owned enterprises, including state-owned and state-controlled media, as well as all members of the corporate boards must be added immediately.

This list should include, at a minimum, those at the deputy minister level, all generals and colonels in the armed forces, police, and intelligence services, and anyone at the vice president level at state-owned enterprises. Senior officials and personalities being paid by Putin and state-controlled media companies also must be sanctioned, until they resign. Any member of United Russia and other political parties that support Putin’s invasion also should be placed automatically on the sanctions list. If these party members want to get off the sanctions list, all they have to do is resign.

Policies for sanctioning private sector individuals also must become more uniform. To eliminate subjectivity and lobbying efforts, all of Russia’s 100 richest people should be sanctioned, without exception. (And after they have been sanctioned, move on to the next 100.) However, these billionaires should be offered an off-ramp: if they denounce Putin and his war, suspend tax payments to the Russian government until the invasion ends, and pledge a significant fraction of their personal fortunes to a newly created Ukrainian Reconstruction Fund controlled by the government of Ukraine. High bar? Yes. But this is a horrific war.

Although their full effect might take years to be realized, sanctions, including individual sanctions, are working. But we need them to work better, faster and more justly to bring an end to this war. As long as figures like Gerhard Schroeder can evade accountability, the sanctions regime needs improvement.